Mark 7:1-23 Conflict with the Pharisees over Clean and Unclean


Mark 7:1-23


Jesus escalates his conflict with the Pharisees by declaring all foods clean.


In addition to keeping the Sabbath, an important part of Jewish religious life was the observance of dietary restrictions. This was not a concern unique to the Jews; other religious groups in the ancient world had similar restrictions; for instance, the Pythagoreans, a Greek religious sect, abstained from eating fava beans on religious grounds. Dietary restrictions helped the Jews to establish cultural boundaries in relation to their neighbors. The most well-known of these was the prohibition against eating pork (see Mark 5:1-20 The Gerasene Demoniac), but it also involved rules about how to prepare food.

One of the goals of the Pharisees was to help Jewish people bring their religious practices into their everyday lives. They believed that acts as simple as the preparing of meals could be a way to glorify God. As part of this practice, they developed the so-called “Oral Torah,” a set of teachings and traditions related to daily life. This Oral Torah brough the Pharisees and Jesus into conflict. In response to a question about washing hands before eating, Jesus rejects the Pharisees’ customs through an appeal to the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 29:13).

Jesus continues on to make an even more radical claim: no food can make a person unclean. In the western world, in which food and religion are often completely separated, this may seem like an obvious claim, but as discussed above, it would have been astounding to Jesus’ audience and it would have struck at the heart of their understanding of religious life. Jesus redirects the people away from dietary restrictions to the disposition of their hearts. This is a theme that Paul will take up in his letter to the Corinthians, especially with regard to food sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8).